'Why does this keep happening?' Mass shootings in Boulder and Atlanta expose loopholes, weaknesses in gun laws

·12 min read

WASHINGTON – Back-to-back mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado underscore how loopholes and weak restrictions in gun laws enabled both suspects to get quick access to their weapons of choice in attacks that left 18 people dead.

The two shootings in March thrust the issue of gun violence back into the national spotlight – and with it, calls for changes in gun requirements.

Though the shootings are unrelated and on different ends of the country, they exposed issues within gun laws. They show that nuances in laws – or no laws at all – allow certain guns to skirt state and federal statutes.

The suspect who police said opened fire and killed eight at three spas in Georgia – an attack that shook the Asian American community – bought a handgun hours before the massacre. Georgia has no state law requiring a firearm waiting period, a requirement in 10 states and the District of Columbia that aims to save lives by delaying a potential killer from acting on impulse.

Six days after the Georgia assault, police said, a man described by family members as mentally ill attacked a Colorado grocery store and killed 10, including an officer. Police said that in the days before the attack, the suspect purchased a Ruger AR-556 pistol that experts said largely mirrors a short-barrel rifle.

Federal law allows the Ruger to be categorized as a pistol, granting the suspect easy access to the weapon without the extensive restrictions placed on short-barrel rifles.

Wednesday, yet another mass shooting erupted, one that will probably ignite further calls for changes in gun laws: Four people, including a child, were killed when a suspect opened fire in a Southern California office building about 30 miles from Los Angeles.

The carnage from these three rampages in less than three weeks: 22 dead.

"Why does this keep happening? And why aren't we doing anything to stop it?" Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who represents the city of Parkland, where there was a mass shooting at a high school in 2018. "We have both a gun violence epidemic in our country. And we have, sadly, a routine that we follow after these mass shootings, where there is intense focus that lasts until people move on to the next issue."

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Michael Webb, the ex-husband of Xiaojie Tan 谭小洁 – one of the victims of the Georgia spa shootings – told those at her funeral Friday that their family wants their daughter to move to China because of gun violence and attacks targeting Asian Americans in the USA.

"They think it's just not safe here anymore, and who could blame them," Webb said. "Do we really have to quarantine ourselves to avoid being gunned down in the grocery store, our schools, our businesses, our places of worship? Must our flags always fly at half-mast? We as a country should be ashamed."

Police said the suspect in the Atlanta-area attacks was found with a 9mm firearm. He legally purchased a weapon the day of the attacks from Big Woods Goods, a sporting good store in Cherokee County where police say the first spa he targeted is located. Matt Kilgo, the shop's attorney, said his clients are "fully cooperating" with police. "Everything they have will be turned over," Kilgo said.

If Georgia had required the suspect to wait before getting a gun, lawmakers and advocates said, he might not have acted on his impulses.

“It’s really quick. You walk in, fill out the paperwork, get your background check and walk out with a gun,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “If you’re in a state of crisis, personal crisis, you can do a lot of harm fairly quickly.”

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The majority of states have laws similar to Georgia, allowing buyers to walk out of a store with a firearm after a background check that sometimes can take minutes. Waiting periods are required in 10 states and the District of Columbia, although several states are considering legislation this year to impose them.

Gun control advocates have been pushing for years to mandate a window of even a couple of days between the purchase of a gun and taking possession of it, arguing it can give more time for background checks and create a cooling-off period for people considering harming themselves or someone else. Studies suggest that waiting periods may help bring down firearm suicide rates by up to 11% and gun homicides by about 17%, according to the Giffords Center.

Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, a first-term Democrat and the first Asian American elected to the body, proposed a bill after the shootings that called for a five-day waiting period. It wasn't welcomed in the GOP-held Legislature.

"I think (this attack) brings a lot of focus on should we be able to buy a gun that we use to kill people that quickly," she told USA TODAY. "The thinking behind having a waiting period is essentially to build in a cooling-off period to help guard against impulsive acts like this."

She noted a comment made by police after the shootings that the suspect was having a "bad day," calling it ridiculous and sympathetic to the suspect but explaining that broadly, it "really illustrates" why waiting periods can be helpful, especially in suicides or domestic disputes where a cooling-off period could be crucial.

Thirteen days after the shootings, the Georgia Senate passed a measure that would loosen gun restrictions in the state.

The measure, which needs to be voted on by the GOP-held state House before reaching the Republican governor, would allow anyone from any state who has a concealed weapons permit to carry a gun in Georgia.

It would expand prohibitions on restrictions on gun owners and gun shops during a state of emergency, something that became a topic during the COVID-19 lockdowns. It would prevent authorities from seizing firearms during a state of emergency, prohibit government officials from stopping the manufacture or sale of guns during an emergency and halt the government from limiting operating hours of gun stores, gunmakers or shooting ranges unless every business in an area is subject to the same restrictions.

The bill would prevent the creation of any multi-jurisdictional database with information about anyone who applies for a weapons license, and it would require agencies to auction confiscated firearms at least once a year, making sure they couldn't hold firearms indefinitely. If a city, county or state agency didn't hold the required auction, the bill would allow anyone who wanted to buy the guns to sue.

"It's an incredible slap in the face to our community, which is still reeling from this tragedy," Au said, calling the legislation "tone deaf" but noting that was a "very mild way to put muscling through an agenda that runs completely counter to what we are hearing from our communities of what people want."

Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, oppose waiting periods. The group points to federal firearm-tracing data in 2018 that showed the average time between the first retail sale of a gun and involvement in a crime was nearly nine years. They argue that waiting periods create a delay for people buying legally, while leaving illegal weapons transfers unaffected.

“A right delayed is a right denied,” Second Amendment Foundation founder Alan Gottlieb said.

In Colorado, pistol skirts gun laws, experts say

In the attack March 22, witnesses told police a man wearing body armor and carrying a rifle fired at people at the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. Police called the weapon fired at them an AR-15-style rifle several times in the arrest affidavit that charged the suspect with 10 counts of first-degree murder.

The Ruger AR-556 looks like a rifle and operates similarly, firing the same ammunition an AR-15 rifle does, but it's categorized as a pistol. It's smaller than a typical AR-15, allowing it to be more concealable and maneuverable, and has several other differences, including being manufactured to operate with one hand instead of two.

Experts and gun control advocates accused gun manufacturers of using vaguely worded laws that define different categories of weaponry to skirt regulations.

They argued the pistols largely mirror a short-barrel rifle, which are heavily regulated under the National Firearms Act. A short-barrel rifle is defined in the act as one with a barrel shorter than 16 inches. The Ruger AR-556 pistol has a barrel of 9.5 to 10 inches.

"If you cut off the back end of the AR-15 and you shorten up the muzzle – the front part where the bullet comes out – it’s the same thing," said Christopher Herrmann, a former New York City police officer and an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "You’ve taken this deadly AR-15 weapon and now you’ve made it concealable."

Like the AR-15, the gun is semiautomatic. It's a portable "weapon of mass destruction," Herrmann said – "all the comforts of a limousine but in a smaller car."

The National Firearms Act regulates certain weapons and attachments, including machine guns, silencers and sawed-off shotguns. It poses stringent rules and a lengthy process to purchase these weapons. Among the provisions, a person must be approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, pass an extensive background check, submit photos and fingerprints, fully register the gun and pay a tax. The process typically takes months.

The suspect in the Boulder shooting purchased the Ruger AR-556 six days before the attack.

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The Gun Control Act defines a pistol as a weapon with a short stock that is "designed to be gripped by one hand." The definition doesn't note anything about the length of a barrel, meaning the Ruger AR-556 can be categorized as a pistol if it meets the criteria, said Rick Vasquez, a former ATF firearms enforcement officer who owns a business that offers training in identifying firearms and on regulations.

Wednesday, a group of 100 House Democrats wrote a letter to President Joe Biden calling on him to take executive action to address "serious inequities in the implementation of the National Firearms Act," noting these pistols and their concealability pose an "unreasonable threat to our communities" and should be highly regulated.

"For too long, gun manufacturers in order to circumvent the National Firearms Act have designed and marketed concealable AR-15-style firearms which fire rifle rounds," the letter reads.

House Democrats passed two gun control measures in the aftermath of the shootings, trying to close a loophole that allows gun sales to proceed without a completed background check if three business days have passed. Lawmakers want to extend the background check review period from three days to 10.

Both bills face an uphill battle in the Senate where 60 votes are needed to pass them, meaning 10 Republicans would have to vote with all Democrats.

The standstill has put pressure on Biden to act.

The president called for the Senate to pass the two House bills, and the White House stressed all options were on the table, from other legislation to executive actions.

Biden is focused on plans for the second phase of his "Build Back Better" agenda, choosing to instead wield his political capital on an infrastructure package to help the country rebound after the pandemic.

"It's a matter of timing," Biden said about gun control. "As you’ve all observed, the successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing. Order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done."

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Rep. Deutch argued it was well past time to act and provide meaningful changes for communities such as Parkland, Florida, that have watched in horror each time there's another attack. "It's both frustration and a sense of purpose," he said of how his community reacts.

The Florida Democrat argued the path forward doesn't have to be so complicated, pointing to the blueprint used over the past year to pass COVID-19 relief packages. In an emergency, he said, both parties worked together to find common ground to provide relief and change.

"I think the administration must make this a priority and not by passing a particular piece of legislation but by stopping this epidemic of gun violence, which affects every community in the country," he said.

He called for Biden to use appearances across the country to help pass gun reforms: "We're asking that the president use his very strong and powerful and emotional voice and connection that he has with people to do what he's done before: which is to bring people together to stop gun violence."

Contributing: Courtney Subramanian, Romina Ruiz, Grace Hauck and Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Atlanta, Colorado mass shootings expose lax gun laws, loopholes

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